In spite of the fact that the very first Italian pilot was a navy officer, Mario Calderara, the Italian Navy was always very limited for not having its own naval aviation. In fact, until 1989 Italian Navy used only helicopters, as the anti submarine airplanes (S2C Helldiver, Grumman S2F Tracker and Breguet Atlantic) belong to the "Aeronautica Militare" ( the Italian Air Force) even if they depended operationally on the Navy and their crews are mixed. Only by the Law nr 36 of 1st February 1989, the Italian Navy was allowed to get fixed wing components, to employ on board on the "Garibaldi" carrier. The AV 8B+ was unsurpringsly the only fixed wing aircraft to met the Marina Militare requirements. Its carrier the Giuseppe Garibaldi was commissioned in 1985 and was at one stage the smallest aircraft carrier in the world. Initially used only as helicopter carrier, the Garibaldi along the firsts years of employment had already seen training deployment by Royal Navy Harriers, Us Navy Marines Corps and Spanish Navy.
The Marina Miltiare purchased 16 AV 8B Plus single seater version and 2 TAV 8B two-seater, and the first aircraft were officially delivered to GRUPAER the 24th September 1991, when the two TAV-8B landed at Grottaglie after delivered to Italy aboard Nave Garibaldi. Both two seater and the first three single seater were build by McDonnell Douglas and shipped across, with the construction of remaining 13 single seater undertaken by Italian Factory ALENIA at Torino Caselle, with the delivery of the last aircraft taking place in 1998. Now based at MARISTAER Grottaglie, near Taranto, the Unit has around 14 pilots assigned, including an US MARINES officer as pilot exchange, and as Unit emblem was selected a very vicious and snarling "Wolf head".
CF Luca Conti, "CAIMAN", GRUPAER Commander, is understandably proud of the Unit's results and development after more than 15 years of activity. "we are now living a very important phase of our Unit life; we have integrated the new weapons as the AIM 120 AMRAAM and JDAM with our aircraft, and trained our pilots to be combat ready with the new BVR missile. The AMRAAM integration was required only by Italian Navy, as the Marines don't need the BVR capability, and all the cost programs and efforts were charged to us. We also trained all the GRUPAER pilots to become full combat ready using the flight simulator based at Grottaglie. Ours is surely the advanced Harrier flying simulator, as it is a "dual dome" system and it allows the capability to train two pilots as couple formation flight, simulating realistically every kind of mission".
The Harrier II Plus is a very powerful aircraft, thanks its technical characteristics and avionics, as is equipped with the operationally proven APG-65 radar system, a host of third generation technology and weapons that make it truly multi-mission capable. The AV 8B+ has a formidable arsenal of air-to-air weapons as well as the extraordinary capability in air-to-surface missions for which the AV-8B Harrier II is known. In addition to a 25mm rapid-fire GAU-12A Gatling gun and heat-seeking AIM 9L Sidewinder missiles for close in engagements, the GRUPAER Harrier aircraft also carries the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM. The air-to-surface capabilities have also expanded to include a digital targeting data link, Global Positioning System, the AN/AAQ-28 Northrop/Rafel Litening II Targeting Pod system, that allow the employment of the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). Currently the GRUPAER Harrier for CAS mission can also employs GP bombs Mk 81,82 and 83, air to ground missiles AGM 65 Maverick and Laser Guided Bomb GBU 12 and 16.
"however our main mission is to provide aerial cover of the Naval Battle Group, and for this reason the capability to launch BVR missiles enhance greatly our capabilities, but at the same time we are able to perform perfectly all the ground support mission required by the amphibious operation and to support the requirements of the peace-keeping mission as we perform during Operation Enduring Freedom, that saw our Units employed with the Italian Naval Task Force sent to the Arabian Sea zone to contribute to the Enduring Freedom operation and before during ALLIED FORCE.
Italy entered in war with all the others Coalition Nations to support USA, at 15.00pm of 4th October 2001, following the application of the " article nr 5" of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the "Twin Towers" attack on the 11th September 2001. On the 18th November 2001, Garibaldi carrier left Taranto with 8 AV-8B+ on board, with 9 pilots and 57 specialists at the command of former GRUPAER Commanding Officer CC Massimo Russo. One of the Grupaer pilot, was later also detch. on board USS ROOSEVELT as liaison officer, and the Italian Navy flight operations were placed under the control of the CJFAAC ( Coalition Joint Force Air Component Commander) based at Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia.
"During this Operation, our Harriers have carried out a total of 288 missions ( in detail 10 familiarization sorties, 147 for training and 131 operational mission ) for a total of around 647 combat flight hours, including 229 hours during 44 recce missions e 418 hours flying 87 CAS sorties, to a distance always more than 1,000 km from the carrier with normally three air refuel lings in flight. During the first part of the operation, we flew essentially reconnaissance mission, as we got the clearance to fly CAS mission and eventually drop bombs only after the 31 December. For the CAS mission we flew with the two AIM 9L, two extra fuel tanks and the excellent laser designation pod AN/AAQ-28 LITENING II, supporting the USA CAS fighter and controlling the area assigned thanks the excellent pod sensors. After getting the authorization to delivery weapons from our Government, we normally started to fly two ship- missions, with one of the two aircrafts configured with two fuel tanks under the wings and a couple of 500lbs GBU-12 bombs laser guided, and the other Harrier armed with two AIM9 L for the auto-guide and the targets designation pod LITENING II fitted at the central pylon. We did not carry the gun pod, we flew essentially medium - high altitudes level, and we had no need to go down to strafe ground target. Generally we carried out two-ship sorties every day with departure of the first one in the morning and the second in the afternoon, and all the flight after the take-off form the Garibaldi and the transit through Pakistan always followed from an AWACS aircraft that assures the control of the air space and all the air passages suitably built for the Enduring Freedom's air operations."
In fact, the Gruppo Navale Italiano and Garibaldi carrier, sailed Arabic Sea, not less than around 1000 km from the operational area over Afghanistan. " We got the tasking order the night before the mission, and our intelligence dept. elaborated all the details in order to be ready with all the info and coordination details for the briefing, normally two hours before the mission. Our missions usually involved the support of the land operations against taliban and Al Qaeda forces. During this first part of the mission, we were refuelled by a tanker and when we reach the area we came under control of the AWACS or JSTAR. We could orbit on a Control Point between 20.000 and 24.000 feet for around two hours, waiting for a call, before headed to a tanker for another aerial refuelling. All the missions lasted around 5-6 hours, and all the maintenance personnel made great efforts to assure minimum five aircraft were ready for combat on every day of operation. We had very good Harrier fleet efficiency results, with a normal rate of 85 % of aircraft available each day".
"During ENDURING FREEDOM the use of the new pod LITENING II, greatly improved our capability of CAS, compared to the mission flew during ALLIED FORCE, as over Kossovo we were forced to employ LGB only by the support of American FAC fighters, as our Harriers were still not equipped with designation pods. After this experience, the MARINA MILITARE decided to buy a new pod and the AN/AAQ-28 Litening II was selected. This pod is absolutely a "state of art" systems, as it can detect target over 40.000 feet, while LANTIRN, for example, is around 25.000 feet. We flew some mission, using our pod ad target designator, to support the US NAVY and Marines fighters, and all these pilots greatly appreciate our capability. We had no problem of integration with the US operations, as all GRUPAER pilots were trained in USA and normally we operated following the NAVY/MARINES procedures and employ philosophy.
The GRUPAER pilots are enthusiastic of the Harrier, and STV Nicola Galluzzi "UZI" is a good witness: I love to fly Harrier, it's a fantastic machine and particularly the AV 8B+ version is a real dream for a fighter pilot. Its weapon system is really updated, and now thanks to the capability to launch the AMRAAM, our "bird" is a truly " multirole aircraft".
We can fly indifferently air to ground and air to air mission, night and day, and particularly for the aerial combat we can employ particularly tactics using the " thrust vectoring control", that allow the Harrier to fly very particularly and unusual flying manoeuvres and assets. The flying command also are build following HOTAS concept, and this help greatly the pilot, as we can fly without move our hands from the stick and the throttle, where is also positioned the switch to select the various function of the mission computer represented on the two wide MFD screen and the HUD enlarged image. To fly night time mission, we can use a FLIR and cockpit instrumentation is full NVG capable.
All the Italian Navy Harrier pilots are trained in USA: " After graduated the Naval Academy in Livorno, the students selected to become fixed wing pilot, are assigned to NAS Whiting Field, in Florida, in order to fly with T 34C Turbo Mentor for the primary basic training flight. After around 70 flying hours during the 6 months course, the student is assigned to NAS MERIDIAN, for the advanced flying course. Here the new pilot flies little less than 90 flying hours, on the T 2C Buckeye and T 45 Goshawk getting also the " carrier qualification" before to get the "Wings of Gold". After the qualification, the pilots move to MCAS Cherry Point, where they are qualified on the AV 8 Harrier at the unique Marines Unit charged of the Harrier training, the VMAT 203. After the Harrier transition, the pilot moves to a USMC Unit, where he is assigned for some months before to go back to Italy to be assigned to the GRUPAER, after three years of training.
The future of the aerial force of Marina looks bright, with a new carrier ( already named as Cavour ) will be in service in 2007 and with the new JSF F35 STOVL fighter already selected as natural replacement of the Harrier AV 8B+.